The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is an undeniable achievement filled with highs and lows. It all began with a simple idea, thrown in after the credits of the first, risky movie: “You’ve become part of a bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet.” That idea blossomed into a whopping twenty-three movies that crossed over with each other for over a decade and of which is still going. But as anyone who’s sat through both a dull Iron Man or Thor sequel and the Oscar-winning zeitgeist phenomenon Black Panther can surely attest, there is a range of quality within this franchise of franchises. Which is to say, while every MCU movie has been a hit financially, they are not all created equal. And so in honor of today being the day that was originally going to see the release of Black Widow, here’s my ranking of every MCU Film…
23. Iron Man 2 (2010)
If Nicky Fury’s words to Tony Stark at the end of Iron Man were a confident declaration about the intentions to create the “Avengers Initiative,” then Iron Man 2 is tripping over your shoelaces and faceplanting. Iron Man 2 suffers from trying to do too much in the span of one movie, and no one seeming to agree on what needs to take priority. And while there’s some positive elements — the suitcase armor, Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer, and Mickey Rourke’s odd pronunciation of the word “bird” — the majority of this film is less good. From the abysmal introduction to Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow to the lousy villain to weak finale, Iron Man 2 is quite forgettable.
22. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Even back in 2008, the then-budding MCU’s new version of The Incredible Hulk was something of a hedge. It recast and rebooted the character just five years after Ang Lee’s divisive (and more memorable) take on the character, yet left enough wiggle room for less attentive audience members to assume it was some form of a sequel. When the role was recast again for The Avengers, this Universal release was further pushed to the margins, and with good reason. Though Ed Norton is well-cast as both soft-spoke Bruce Banner and his furious alter ego, and director Louis Leterrier knows his way around pulpy action, this somewhat watchable but forgettable movie’s tone is all out of whack, perhaps in part due to Norton’s squabbles with the filmmakers over the movie’s tone. At the time, this was considered part of the actor’s difficult reputation. Yet, years later, though, Edgar Wright, Joss Whedon, and others had their own behind-the-scenes struggles with the Marvel machine.
21. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Chris Hemsworth spoke for all of us when, with a withering “meh,” Thor himself dismissed The Dark World as “the second one.” Sandwiched between Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Solider, this entry benefits from some of its clean direction, but stagnates through its toothless villain, a perfunctory romance, and empty mythology.
20. Doctor Strange (2016)
One complaint frequently lobbed at the Marvel movies is that they operate by a rigid, tried-and-true formula. But Doctor Strange may be the first of the studio’s blockbusters — various sequels included — to feel explicitly like a rerun. In forging a grand introduction for surgeon-turned-wizard Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), director Scott Derrickson and his co-writers essentially stuff the original Iron Man in a magic cape, offering the conspicuously similar origin story of a goateed, wisecracking egomaniac getting in touch with his selfless side. And yet if Doctor Strange dutifully, sometimes dully hits some very familiar plot points, it breaks the Marvel mold in at least one welcome respect: The visual effects are uncharacteristically amazing, while taking visual cues from both the source material and Inception. Hopefully the sequel will marry that visual wizardry to a more magical story — or at least a less derivative one.
19. Thor (2011)
It’s kind of odd how the movie that introduced one of the MCU’s best bad guys and one of its most consistently delightful goofballs ended up being such dull ride. And I’m not a 100% sure where things start to go bad. Is it the poor gelling of the Marvel model and director Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearean aspirations? It is how the fish-out-of-water set-up is counterintuitive for someone like a Norse god? Maybe its the nonexistent chemistry between Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman? Or the dry setting of New Mexico when compared to something like Asgard? Whatever it is, its safe to say that the central brotherly bond and rivalry is strong, but everything else isn’t.
18. Captain Marvel (2019)
Captain Marvel feels pretty much on par with Thor with maybe getting the slight edge because it’s got a some good buddy comedy thing going between Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). But overall, you have a character who’s much better than her debut movie. Nothing surrounding her, from the direction to the script, is really on par with what Larson brings to the character and how she makes Carol Danvers come to life. And that’s important! Imagine not getting Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man or Chris Evans as Captain America. Sure, there might have been other actors out there who could have done the job, but those guys were perfect for their respective roles and so is Larson. Yet it’s the world she’s in that lacks the flair and imagination the movie needs, especially given its cosmic setting. We had seen great Marvel cosmic worlds (i.e. Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok) before, but none of their boldness is here and the world, whether it’s 1995 Earth or the cosmos feels depressingly mundane. From the rather bland set pieces that fail to make her powers all that impressive to its poor execution of trying to obscure the origin story, Captain Marvel introduces an intriguing hero in unrewarding fashion.
17. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Having one massively successful Marvel movie under your belt tends to earn a director a little more leeway to shrug off the conventions of the studio’s house style and pursue their own vision in the sequel. After the critical and box-office success of the first Guardians, James Gunn returned to his motely assemblage of space weirdos with mixed results. The story of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) discovering his father (Kurt Russell), all his motives, and further family dynamics can often come off overly sentimental, but at the same time the movie’s concerns with character and emotion over plot is admirable. Yet, the movie can also just feel like everyone’s vamping until the next major plot shift, which can dampen some of the moving moments. Guardians Vol. 2 possesses some strong absurdist imagery, but also the whole endeavor ends up feeling sort-of weightless.
16. Ant-Man (2015)
If you’re going to alienate Edgar Wright from making your Ant-Man movie (despite him being the only reason anyone wanted to make an Ant-Man movie), you could do a lot worse than hiring Paul Rudd and his Anchorman collaborator Adam McKay to work on the script, or hiring Peyton Reed to direct. This snappy team explains why Ant-Man can often be swift and light on its feet. Yet its at the same time, the movie missteps when it soft-pedals Rudd’s career criminal-turned-superhero Scott Lang. Lang never really registers as a bumbling loafer, just as Ant-Man never really registers as the heist movie it’s supposed to be. And while the film has strong stakes, it also has a nothing villain (Corey Stoll) that renders them lesser.
15. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
On one hand, Avengers: Infinity War has staggering ambition to try to bring together almost every Marvel superhero into a single film. Honestly, it’s probably the film’s greatest strength outside of the occasional moment of humanity or warmth. But the film’s greatest strength also ends up being its greatest weakness. Because it’s trying to get around to everyone, the movie ends up choppy and sporadic, really getting around to no one. Everyone is pretty much the same character they were at the start of the movie. There’s no catharsis, no development, no realization. Sure, the actors play off of each other well, but unlike other Marvel movies, Infinity War isn’t really about anything. There’s no character arcs or even a thematic arc beyond the broad questioning of how we value life. (And while Josh Brolin’s performance is strong, Thanos’ motivations aren’t.) The movie’s a lot of excess with stakes that in the end ring false, simply because the lack of Marvel risk-taking.
14. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
I seem to be one of the few that thinks that Ant-Man and the Wasp is one of the rare sequels that surpasses the original. Buy, hey, so be it. The improvement in some part comes from the increased importance of Scott Lang’s new partner — Evangeline Lilly as The Wasp — and the refinement of the Paul Rudd-as-superhero slapstick strategy. While the first Ant-Man was mixed, Ant-Man and the Wasp takes the previously established levity further; it’s basically a comedy threaded through a superhero movie. Even the villain (Hannah John-Kamen) is sympathetic, leaving most of the drama to rest on the heartfelt reunion between Hank (Michael Douglas) and Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) in the Quantum Realm. Meanwhile, Rudd hams it up as Scott and plays pranks on the cops who want to keep him under house arrest, and Lilly’s Wasp gets her own strong size-changing set-pieces. Overall, its a small bright spot in the universe.
13. Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)
While not quite as strong as Spider-Man: Homecoming, Spider-Man: Far From Home does what these MCU Spider-Man movies do best, which is provide a look at the world of the MCU from the eyes of non-superheroes. While Spider-Man (Tom Holland) may be at the center of the action, he’s surrounded by normal people who are reacting to massive events surround them, and their perspectives bring a certain humanity to everything. While Far From Home also shines by fitting its villain (Jake Gyllenhaal) into relation with our world, the film struggles in its pacing. By taking Peter and his pals on a European vacation that then becomes a spy thriller of sorts, but also loses the tightness and focus of Homecoming. Far From Home still takes Spider-Man to some interesting places, but the film occasionally loses sight of the personal stakes that makes this such a rich character.
12. Iron Man 3 (2013)
Iron Man 3 is a fascinating and incredibly divisive film in the MCU. It’s a film that should carry the entire burden of 2012’s The Avengers on its back, and instead just shrugs it off, and at the same time shrugs off the responsibility of being part of a shared universe to just go off and do its own thing. It’s kind of a middle-finger to people who walk into these movies with big expectations, not just in terms of the MCU, but also the Mandarin twist, and yet that irreverence is also part of the film’s charm. Shane Black is a filmmaker who likes messing with conventions, so in that sense, perhaps he wasn’t the best choice to tackle the first post-Avengers film. And yet if you support filmmaker-driven cinema, he’s one of Marvel’s most inspired choices, and he gives Iron Man 3 a personality that’s completely unique to the MCU rather than having a film that could have just easily blended in and faded away. The tone gets heavier and zanier than ever, and the action gets the job done. In the end, Iron Man 3 is a great litmus test even if its plot is a bit scattershot and overstuffed.
11. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Avengers: Age of Ultron is far from perfect, yet I still have an admiration for it because of how imperfect it is. It’s a film whose greatest sin is trying to do too much, but it does so much of it well that I don’t begrudge the film in the same way I do other movies that are big just for the sake for being big. Age of Ultron is bigger by studio and audience demands of sequels being bigger, but it also carries bigger ideas with it too. Where Age of Ultron could really stand to be stronger and where it needs its spine is in making Ultron a better character. James Spader really brings it from a performance perspective, but ultimately, there’s a gap to our understanding of Ultron. Sure, we see that he hates the Avengers, but it also feels like he hates them because they’re the protagonists rather than any ideological difference. Yet, there’s still strong qualities to Age of Ultron: there’s some really strong set pieces (in particular the Hulkbuster fight), the relationship between Hulk and Black Widow feels thoughtful and inspired. Age of Ultron seems to get flack for not playing into audience expectations, a criticism that I personally find mawkish. But those expectations overlook everything that Whedon was doing right rather than judging the movie on its own merits. So maybe its time for some to give it a rewatch.
10. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Captain America: Civil War seems to be a film that has dropped with many over time. And I’m kind of mixed on it. It’s a movie that has some interesting ideas about government oversight and whether personal responsibility to all outweighs personal responsibility to an individual. The film also has maybe the finest set piece the MCU has ever seen in the big airport tussle, but also struggles with all of its moving parts throughout. While the tone and bombast might not always match the themes, if you view the film as a big-budget ensemble soap opera, it works fine.
9. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
First off, I want to thank Spider-Man: Homecoming for leaving the radioactive spiders in the past. Jon Watts’ reboot, the character’s third in fifteen years, catches up with Peter Parker in the months after he gained his signature powers, when he’s as awkward at slinging webs as he is at asking girls on dates. Truly, Homecoming‘s best scenes have nothing to do with action and everything to do with friendship, parties, and coming of age, be it as a teenager or a superhero. Tom Holland’s excitable energy gives Peter a boyishness his predecessors lacked and, as such, the danger is felt that much more when, say, we see him legit crying beneath a stack of flaming debris. It’s a game changing improvement.
8. The Avengers (2012)
The first all-hands-on-deck superhero team-up film in the MCU is still pretty good, and the bar by which many in the future will be judged. The balancing act pulled off by writer-director Joss Whedon is a pretty impressive feat of blockbuster filmmaking: He manages to service the story of every titular hero from previous standalone films, create character arcs that feed into the larger plot, and provide a beginning, middle, and end to the large-scale story. And he does it all with a breezy wit and meaningful emotional stakes that keep you engaged for the entire two-and-a-half hours. From the character-based humor to the actually great epic final fight, it’s everything a Marvel fan — or even a casual moviegoer — could probably want.
7. Black Panther (2018)
Black Panther is probably the only movie in the MCU that’s more remarkable for what it means in the larger landscape of blockbuster cinema than how it relates to other Marvel movies. Black Panther isn’t indifferent to the rest of the MCU, it has its connections. But it’s far more revolutionary than just delivering standard superhero fare. It sees director Ryan Coogler make a thoughtful look at isolationism, deliver the MCU’s finest villain in Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), some solid world-building, and some strong supporting characters and performances. The movie falters through T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) being arguably the least interesting character and even more through a majority of its third-act. It’s there where the movie starts to fall into the traditional Marvel beats and towards a quite ugly, visual effects-driven final fight. Yet through all that, the ideas presented don’t get lost, but more put on hold. But its everything before it that exceeds your standard Marvel template.
6. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
The best Marvel movies are the ones that find their own niche within the larger framework and with Thor: Ragnarok, director Taika Waititi gave the MCU its best comedy to date, buddy or otherwise. Waititi plays up the deadpan humor and awkward interpersonal dynamics, finding killer pairings in Chris Hemsworth and every single one of his co-stars, from Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk to Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. That would be enough to make it the strongest film in the Thor trilogy, but Waititi also delivers some of the some striking visuals in all the MCU, while also finding places for screwball energy to tell a poignant refugee story. So while he was tasked with bringing Asgard to an end, Waititi ended up breathing new life into Thor and his solo series.
5. Iron Man (2008)
Origin stories can be a drag; as the argument goes, they’re everything that happens before the fun begins. But Iron Man proves that they don’t have to be. The very first MCU movie finds a lot of humor and drama in the prelude portion of a superhero saga, building a sterling pre-armor character arc for Tony Stark, the sardonic playboy-mogul whose brush with death jump-starts his conscience. What director Jon Favreau really has going for him is Robert Downey Jr., whose witty, sneakily complex performance provides the film — and the universe it launched — with a glowing fuel cell of movie-star charisma. Iron Man, of course, is also the origin story for a whole franchise, establishing of its strengths (humor, good performances) and weaknesses (iffy villains, serviceable action and visual effects). But it remains, over a decade later, one of the studio’s most satisfying and well-rounded entertainments, mostly for how it privileges the man over the iron, and finds in where those two sides meet.
4. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
The culmination of the first three phases of the MCU, is the finest of the team-up movies. No movie in the franchise has carried the weight of Avengers: Endgame, and it pays things off quite well, providing a fulfilling conclusion to plenty of character arcs along the way. It’s a large spectacle at the end, and with the stakes at their peak, the film never loses sight of breezy charm and the importance of character. While Infinity War clunkily moved along and felt hollow, Endgame puts the focus right back where it belongs and let us remember why we invested in all these heroes in the first place. Sure, the time travel aspect is fuzzy, but for a three-hour film, Endgame flies by and it serves as a mighty fine conclusion, finally giving the set-up filled franchise some finality.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
With its great cast, tight pacing, and sharp humor, Guardians of the Galaxy is, in some ways, an Avengers movie. You’ve got your cocky would-be leader (Chris Pratt), a sly and deadly assassin (Zoe Saldana), and the remaining muscle, tech whiz, smartass roles filled by Dave Bautista and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel. This team of space misfits assembles to track down the latest MacGuffin and fight off a world-ending threat, becoming a family along the way. Director James Gunn, makes the first foray into the cosmic side of the MCU very worthy. Delivering a solid soundtrack, dancing, a kaleidoscopic palette, exceptional chemistry among the cast, and one of the most moving moments of self-sacrifice in all the MCU.
2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
First off, let’s just go ahead and set aside the “It’s like a ’70s conspiracy thriller!” label because that’s complete nonsense, and it’s trying to unjustly build up the movie to more than it is. Just because your movie has Robert Redford and addresses political surveillance, that doesn’t make you the heir to Three Days of the Condor. I think its only a frustrating description, not just because this movie doesn’t fully got to the depths of those ’70s classics, but because Winter Soldier doesn’t need it. It’s a good movie with trying to force a genre label. Winter Solider refines, rather than shatters, the MCU mold, while delivering solid subtext about surveillance. The Russo brothers, in their first gig for the studio, deliver fully on their mandate, offering all the team-building rapport and future-sequel setup required of a post-Avengers installment. But they also augment the usual CGI fireworks with some really exhilarating practical stunt work, and push the company’s character-first ethos even further, locating multiple dimensions in their title “Avenger.” It was a nice change of pace for the MCU that continaully remains memorable.
1. Captain America: The First Avenger (2009)
Captain America: The First Avenger is an unapologetically rock’em, sock’em action-adventure movie that feels like a throwback in the best way possible. When Marvel head Kevin Feige talks about how their movies can transcend genres, The First Avenger is that transcendence. It’s a superhero movie where the character actually feels heroic and the action is solid, but the character work is on the forefront. Before the MCU, I didn’t have any strong feelings towards any of the characters (from a comics standpoint, I was more a DC guy). But after seeing this film, Captain America shot right up as probably my favorite Marvel character. Chris Evans is perfectly cast as Steve Rodgers and the character is so unflinchingly earnest that he gets right to the heart of heroism. It’s not enough to simply say, “Don’t be a jerk.” It should be about the little guy who jumps on the grenade and knows the value of strength because he’s never had it before. For those who dismiss the film because it’s not “complicated” enough, that’s more than an unfair criticism because it’s not like the film was trying to confuse the audience, or that it needs to reach some pre-determined height of psychological complexity for us to take it seriously (especially since, no Marvel movies have ever really done that). Captain America: The First Avenger gets to the heart of the MCU at its best. It’s bright, colorful, funny, and surprisingly emotional. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has its fair share of solid movies, but for me, Captain America: The First Avenger is the peak.